Sunday, November 3, 2013

WHEN MY MOTHER ALMOST JOINED A CULT

When I was 12 years old, my mother, ever a devout Seventh-day Adventist, nearly joined a cult.  The cult was predicting the destruction of the Adventist church and the slaying of most of its members by angels of God in a three-day period.  This was to be followed immediately by the miraculous transportation of the cult members, then to be numbering 144,000, to the Holy Land, where they would live in perfect peace in anticipation of the Second Coming of Christ.  To join the cult, we would need to sell all of our earthly belongings, turn the proceeds over to the cult, and move to a commune in Waco, Texas.  Yes, weird but true, and here’s the story.


Sometime in 1957 an old friend of my mother (and maybe an old flame from before she got married) introduced her to a small group of Adventists that were holding clandestine meetings on Saturday afternoons to listen to tape recordings of sermons by a renegade Adventist, Victor Houteff.  A Bulgarian immigrant who had converted to the SDA faith in 1919, Mr. Houteff had ultimately declared himself to be a true prophet of God and had written a couple of books describing the prophecies that God had revealed to him.  The books were known as the Shepherd’s Rod, vols. 1 and 2.  Mr. Houteff had died in 1955, but his wife had taken over leadership of the group and was carrying on her husband’s ministry.

The local group that my mother joined met more less in secret because the movement, officially known as the Davidian Seventh-day Adventists but more informally referred to as the Shepherd’s Rod, were personae non gratae within the larger SDA church.  I think my mother was a bit embarrassed about her interest in the movement and didn’t want her friends to know, at least not until she had decided definitely whether or not to join.  

Members of the local group would take turns hosting the meetings on those Saturday afternoons, and my mother would drag my sisters and me to the meetings unless we could come up with some sort of excuse not to go.  And sometimes my mother hosted the meetings, in which case there was no escape.  This was in the late 1950s, so there were no videos and no cleverly constructed powerpoint slides.  Instead, the sermons were tape recordings that one member of the group brought and played on a  reel-to-reel tape recorder.  These recordings were long, generally over two hours, and, to be kind, Mr. Houteff was not a gifted speaker. 

Mr. Houteff had somehow linked some Old Testament prophetic writings, primarily from the book of Ezekiel, to other prophecies in the book of Revelation in the New Testament.  A lot of these prophesies involved visions of mysterious beasts (nightmares, I suppose) that the Biblical prophets had described.  Mr. Houteff had decided that these prophesies had a double meaning.  One obvious meaning related directly to the Hebrew people of the OT prophets’ time that were living in exile and were hoping to return to Palestine.  The other meaning, Mr. Houteff declared, related to our time and referred to events leading up to Christ’s soon Second Coming.  The only fascinating thing about these meetings was that someone had created elaborate drawings of the beasts featured in the prophesies and had compiled them on a flipchart that measured perhaps 2x3 feet.  The chart included not only these fantastic beasts that were sporting numerous dangerous-looking horns but also included timelines that Mr. Houteff had interpreted as leading up to the last days before Christ’s Second Coming.  They were pretty amazing, actually.

The heart of Mr. Houteff’s message was that God was warning the Adventists and instructing them to accept and act upon Mr. Houteff’s prophesies, or else . . . .  This would require that they cash out all of their assets and turn the proceeds over to the Davidian church leadership.  They then were to move to a commune that the Davidians had established in Waco, Texas.  Once 144,000 (a number mentioned in Revelation) Adventists had joined the Davidians, but no later than April 22, 1959, an “angel of the Lord” would, over a three-day period, slay (as in “kill”) all of the remaining Adventists.  Shortly after that the 144,000 would be magically transported to the Holy Land, which God would take from the Israelis and Palestinians to give to the Davidians.  There they would live in peace to await Christ’s Second Coming.  Wow.

That my mother was seriously considering doing this was very scary to me.  It wasn’t just that we would lose all of our belongings--we frankly didn’t have much anyway.  It was that all of my friends and classmates at the Battle Creek Academy would know that we had done this.  And it would mean that we would be moving from Battle Creek to Waco, Texas.

So how close did we come to doing this?  At that time I was very much into maps and I do recall talking to one of the other local members of the group about the best routes for the drive down to Waco.  But in the end my mother and father just couldn’t bring themselves to make the commitment.  I recall my mother saying that she simply could not accept that all of the good people she knew in the church were wrong and that God would slay them.  And that was the end of it for us.  After a year and a half.  We never talked about it much after that, either among ourselves and certainly not with others.

And what happened to the group?  Rumor was that about 1,200 people found their way to Waco, far short of the projected 144,000.  And April 22, 1959 came and went without the slaying of all of the other Adventists.  (Whew.)  At that point the cult largely fell apart, or at least splintered into smaller factions, one of which called themselves the Branch Davidians.  Yes, the same Branch Davidians that later featured David Koresh and that were effectively wiped out by ATF and FBI forces in 1993, resulting in the death of over 80 Davidians and 4 federal officers.  There is still an active website for the Davidian organization, but it is difficult to determine how many actual members remain.

I was 14 when this episode came to a head in early 1959 and still thought of myself as an Adventist.  But I do believe that the exposure to the bizarre belief system of this cult helped to point out for me the dangers of belief based on authority.  So that’s a positive.


© 2013 John M. Phillips

9 comments:

  1. Thanks for mentioning your blog at the SWiFT meeting on Sunday. If 7th Day Adventism is in your background, I expect you are familiar with LIBERTY MAGAZINE. I used to get it from my library. Someone donated it and the library kept most recent issue and gave away the older ones. LIBERTY is entirely devoted to separation of church/state. Its articles can be accessed on line. ~~Carol

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    1. Carol,

      I had actually forgotten all about Liberty Magazine. It's true that separation of church and state is very important to SDAs. But their reasons are quite different from those of secularists. SDAs' motivation for separation of church and state has primarily to do with their doctrine relating to the end of days before Christ's second coming and their belief that during that time there will be great persecution of SDAs for their belief in and practice of keeping a seventh-day sabbath. This is something that I should cover in a subsequent post.

      I enjoyed meeting you and the others at Sunday's meeting.

      John

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  2. John, after reading your Reflection on The Shepher's Rod, so many memories floeded back to my mind. At the time, didn't think too much about it. Can you imagine where we would be now had they decided to sell everything and move?

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    1. Wanda,

      That's a great thought. Life is really a series of forked paths. If we had taken that fork, the "Fork of the Shepherd's Rod," if you will, we would have had very different lives. Who knows where or how we would have wound up. I think we took the better fork.

      That reminds me of the short book "Candide," a dark comedic satire written in 1759 by Voltaire. In the book one of the primary characters, Dr. Pangloss, regardless of what horrible fates befall him, always manages to say after something good follows each catastrophe, "See, this is the best of all possible worlds." Highly recommended reading.

      John

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  3. I am very fortunate to have escaped the cult myself. Childhood indoctrination is a powerful tool that religions use to full effect. But the the modern age of information and the internet is chopping away at its lies...piece by piece at it and exposing it for what it is. A SCAM. Join us on Facebook if you are so inclined. xoxo-V https://www.facebook.com/pages/SWiFT-Southeast-Wisconsin-FreeThinkers/118314571531448

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    1. Your posts are so interesting! While we don’t agree on the God issue, I love reading what you write, and I get a clearer picture of some of what brought you to where you are today. You’ve obviously not touched on everything that helped usher you into being to the person you are, but I appreciate your openness and eagerness in sharing many of the memories of your past .

      I'm glad you've found a medium from which to express yourself, and hope that in some way these truthful expressions will bring whatever it is that you need most. When it plays out well, telling our story, having someone listen, hoping they will understand a bit more about who we are, why we are as we are, our hopes, dreams, disappointments, disillusionments, beliefs, etc, …these are life’s jewels. As we grow older, others are less inclined to want to hear our story. Listening to another’s story is one of the most important gifts we can give. To have found a way to do this is a remarkable feat. Yea for the internet!

      I had no idea all the things you were going through as a teenager. I'm sure the same could be said of all of us though. At age 12, we were all pretty much into ourselves, hoping to highlight the positives and hide anything that might make us appear odd.

      I don’t recall Mr. Houtef or the "Shephard's Rod,” but vaguely recall the Davidians name, though I never knew what this movement was about. How interesting, but also...how scary this had to be for you and your sisters! I'm glad your mother came to her senses and did not drag you and your family through such a horrific fiasco!

      (sorry, but there is a part II as I couldn't fit it all in at one time.)

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    2. I have heard others refer to SDA as being a cultic organization, but I do not think it’s true. There are certain beliefs, within the denomination, however, that should not make it surprising that others might consider SDA’s to be suspect to cultic ways.

      John, I too became quite cautious about authority-based beliefs. Obviously, SDA’s are not the only religious group that has elevated certain scriptures, held them above all other scriptures, come up with a bunch of rules and built a religion around them, but the oppressive hold this belief system had on me was much like what I understand a cult to be like.

      It was difficult to break from, and I’m surprised that I too did not reject all spiritual authority based beliefs. I am so thankful that for me it did not happen that way though. I’ve mentioned before that I stopped believing in God completely in my late 20-early 30s. However, once the break was made from SDA ties, and after several years of unbelief, I came back around to my own personal basic beliefs about God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. All so different from the heaviness of what had been pounded into my head for so many years and the relief was amazing.

      The words, “Born Again” had become a popular cliché, and this was the best way I could describe the newly found me. I was not the terrible person without hope of ever getting it right. I was actually a lovable person that even God could love! There was this new way of seeing God too. In fact this was the most important aspect of my “Born Again” experience! Come to find out, this new way of seeing God” was not so new after all as I came to realize that what I had thought about God, from my youngest years, was actually true. Talk about a gift! I had been a POW who had finally been released from a prison cell after many years! No wonder it took a while to shake free of it all.

      I don’t think our Academy teachers ever meant to steer us into such a heavy place. I believe that they too were spiritually hoodwinked! They probably gave us the best they knew to give, believing so strongly in what they too had been taught. For many, perhaps all, who have broken away from SDA, or other dogmatic doctrine based beliefs, there has been a lot to overcome. I believe it is the struggles of what we have had to overcome that have made us stronger in whatever it is we believe today though, and that is not always a bad thing.

      I found myself being very cautious about believing anything mankind said about the interpretation of the scriptures for a long time. I’m still cautious! I seek to hear from that inner voice that I consider to be God’s spirit. It’s not heavy, not rule-filled, not dogmatic…it’s comforting, reassuring and challenging. That’s not a bad place to be.

      I’m convinced though that neither the break from SDA teachings or my coming back to God was of my own doing, but rather God himself who honored my child-like love. God revealed him self to me in my 30's, in such a way that got my undivided attention, leaving no doubts at all.

      A good healthy balancing of believing in a loving yet powerful God, coupled with enough personal research to satisfy my soul and much prayer was how I came to still be able to hold on to a true dose of spiritual authority and feel more than comfortable with it. I’m still learning! Sill seeing new things, and it’s quite an exciting place to be.

      I’m sorry about all you and I went through in our young years in the name of Christianity. Hopefully such difficulties have made us stronger in ways that are important and have worked to develop our character.

      I know you are glad to be free for entirely different reasons, but we both probably have other things that bind us in some way, at least we can celebrate the freedom that we do share!

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    3. I agree, the SDA church is not a cult, but the Shepherd's Rod certainly was.

      I don't think you have given yourself enough credit for who you are. Rather than giving the credit to God, you should take the credit.

      I agree that our teachers were doing the best that they could. The problem was with the "set of tools" they were given--the basic set of doctrines of the SDA church and insistence on reliance on authority rather than on independent thought. Any faculty who thought for themselves simply wouldn't have lasted very long. They would have left or would have been asked to leave. One of my regrets is that I didn't figure out some way to leave the school. But at the time I lacked self-confidence and felt that I would never make any new friends. Stupid, but there it is.

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